Why work in NGO policy?
Shouting and marching through the streets, being ‘kettled’ by police, and causing havoc on the daily commute for thousands of people may be what comes to mind when you think of NGOs. However, in actual fact, the work that these very important organisations carry out is structured, responsible and incredibly serious.
NGOs (a.k.a. non-governmental organisations) arrange protests, lobby governments and compile support to try and bring about social, political or legal change. There are thousands and thousands of NGOs in the UK, each with a different objective. Without an effective policy, an NGO will struggle to build recognition or work effectively towards its aims.
How do NGOs function?
In order to be credible and bring about real changes, NGOs define an aim or objective, such as reducing HIV infection rates or illicit drug use amongst a certain segment of society. The primary concern of an NGO has to be whether there is actually a problem or not. Furthermore, they need to ascertain the extent of that problem and work out how it can be solved or alleviated.
Research is the cornerstone of any new policy. The potential issue must firstly be identified. Once an organisation identifies an issue that they want to try and resolve, it must be scrutinised and researched to see if it is actually a problem and what advantages will result in solving that problem. Indeed, sometimes solving or highlighting one problem may cause a detrimental effect.
For example, if a study highlighted that people with blue eyes have a higher rate of illiteracy or drug use, employers may then start discriminating against blue-eyed people. This would effectively cause a greater problem than the one that existed before.
Once the issue has been sufficiently researched, it is then time to move on to how the issue can be best tackled or alleviated. This stage is all about the implementation of the policy. Typically, policies will be implemented via lobbying (i.e. talking directly with MPs to get them to support you) and public relations (getting support from the general public through favourable appearances in the media).
How do I get into NGO policymaking?
If you want to break into this area of work, there are a number of roles you can get your teeth into. You could become a researcher, a lawyer, an advocate or even a PR executive.
Research into an issue involves consulting with various experts, bodies or organisations and conducting academic research by reading articles, papers and theses. Here, researchers will be expected to look through a wealth of information, analyse it, take out the relevant information and present it in a way that makes decision-making as easy and accountable as possible.
Once the policy is formulated it must then be committed to paper. A policy has a number of constituent parts to it. The policy maker’s job involves outlining the charter of the NGO, a code of ethics, contacts and advisory boards. The policy will also determine how meetings will be conducted, who can attend, how often they will be, how money will be spent and how success will be measured.
Furthermore, this process will also involve defining internal and external communication plans, responsibilities, partnerships and who is responsible to who and what for. Phew! That may sound like a lot, but there’s bound to be numerous other smaller caveats or rules that need to be outlined too.
The policy is an important document and must demonstrate the transparency of the organisation. Since you are likely to be spending other people’s money, it needs to be clear where that money is going. It is not uncommon for this task to be undertaken with the help of legal guidance.
Implementing the policy is the hard part and requires a real team effort. Public relations (PR) executives play a key role in ensuring the success of a policy. Getting the message out to the general public is obviously really important in order to build support and awareness.
Once you have established a support base and some awareness, then it’s easier to lobby, as you can demonstrate wider support for the issue you are raising. Increased awareness of your policy will also improve your ability to raise funds.
If you are involved in this part of the process, you will spend your time convincing different types of media to give you coverage and appearances.
Lobbying the government can also be an important tool in the implementation of a policy, as this means you can get it protected by law. It is also a great way to bring attention to a particular issue. Lobbying involves meeting with MPs, their aides and their researchers, with the aim of gaining support from powerful decision makers who can ultimately bring about legal and political changes.
Here, advocates may be able to gain research passes giving them access to the Houses of Parliament, where they can badger interns, aides and assistants to get involved with campaigns. Generally, MPs are always looking to improve their profile and being associated with the right causes at the right time has its own advantages.
An NGO isn’t just a Nice Guy Organisation – each one brings about genuine political change, and a lot of the problems that governments are working to address were brought to the forefront by the work of those in this sector. So, if you’re a rad researcher, a princely policy maker, an awesome advocate, a PR pro or a leading lobbyist, as well as a Nice Guy or Gal, then get involved!